In the fall of 2011, against my better judgment and with no prior experience, I attempted to ride a motorcycle from a dairy farm in Upstate New York back to my home in Dallas, Texas. This is the long-winded account of that trip in easy-to-digest line segments.
I lay on my uncle’s couch, under a short blanket that barely reached my chest, tossing and turning with one restless thought in my head: “What the hell am I doing?” It was around ten at night. My uncle Dick had just gone to bed and I, his namesake, was dealing with the possibility that I might be dead within the next day.
We were both trying to sleep in the only home that Uncle Dick had ever known: a two-story white house sitting on the corner of a dormant farm. Uncle Dick was 81 years old then, bent and burnished by decades of dairy farming and sawmilling, all on that verdant, Upstate New York piece. While he slept in the converted first-floor bedroom (he hadn’t ventured upstairs in years) and I on his couch, the object of both my fascination and dread sat in the adjacent garage, under a tarp: a 2005 Suzuki S40 Boulevard motorcycle.
This situation was entirely my dad’s fault. An unobtrusive man by nature, he made the greatest invasion into my life theretofore just a few months earlier and with minimal effort. “Uncle Dick says he’s going to sell that Suzuki,” he told me over an otherwise ordinary phone call. “He was thinking of asking 2,000 for it. I told him, ‘Oh, well Richie might be interested in that.’”
My dad had no reason to say this. It was a response born of his relentless pursuit of good deals. When he came across one, his first impulse was to pass it on, however inapplicable. This particular good deal was very inapplicable. I had not ridden a motorcycle in 15 years and the last time I had left a jalapeno-shaped burn scar on my left calf. Being 16-years-old and male, I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but I became terrified of that two-wheeled nightmare and never rode it again.
Every other Sullivan male loved motorcycles. When I was younger, my dad had three BMW bikes in the garage. My brother, Patrick, started riding when he was 15, going on long road trips with our dad before he could even drive a car. My Uncles, Dick and Bob, were the first motorcycle enthusiasts of the Sullivan clan. When Dick was 20 and Bob was 19, they went in together on their first bike, a 1934 Harley-Davidson, purchased with the money they got from making maple syrup.
My dad never said a word when I stopped riding my dirt bike. And my brother, who once made fun of my “husky” sized jeans when I was 10, also kept quiet. But the truth is I felt like a non-member of Sullivan MC, albeit one that got to hang around the clubhouse.
Any other time, I would have considered my dad’s suggestion to be as ridiculous as it really was. My Uncle Dick lived in Edwards, New York, 2,000 miles by road from Dallas, Texas. And, again, I had ridden a motorcycle once, unsuccessfully, and never on a highway. But at that time I was just getting started as someone very earnestly pretending to be a writer. The idea of flying to New York, climbing on a motorcycle I had never seen and rolling, two-wheeled, onto paved roads for the first time in my life was too foolishly romantic to pass up. Steinbeck and Hemmingway, I thought, would shake their heads at me if I wasted the chance.
A couple of months later, I was in a steaming Dallas parking lot in August, taking a two-day beginner’s course both to allay my fears about operating a motorcycle and to fulfill the requirements toward my motorcycle license. The instructor was a barrel-chested Latino with an easy sense of humor. He had several small motorcycles for students. As I straddled one of the bikes and pressed the starter button, every stupid, macho, Neanderthal male stereotype suddenly made sense. A mere 250 cubic centimeters of displacement rumbled beneath my crotch and I was having a near-life experience, drunk on internal combustion. Delusions of Steve Mcqueen, Dennis Hopper.
When I actually had to move the bike, the results were far less exhilarating. I tapped my feet on the asphalt for balance during the figure-8 exercise. My lane-changes were tentative. I forgot to downshift on my quick-stops. The instructor walked over to me and looked into my eyes. “Why do you look scared,” he asked. It was a dumb question with an obvious answer. I was lucky enough to have my bladder under control. But I got better on the second day, passed the very basic riding and written exams. A few weeks later, I also passed TXDOT’s computer exam and had a class “CM” license in hand. The only thing left to do was pick up the bike and drag it back to Texas, or be dragged.
The actual trip began in New York City. I booked a flight to LaGuardia and spent one night in a 75 dollar hostel room with a shared bathroom and no A/C. Only in New York. I flew with the garish yellow and black helmet my brother gave me and still carried it as I walked around New York City. I quickly discovered that walking around with a motorcycle helmet and no motorcycle looks and feels awkward.
I had hours until my midnight bus to Albany, where I would change buses to Gouverneur, so I sat at the bus station bar. What I failed to realize in the meantime is that Greyhound books buses like an airline does its planes. My ticket was no guarantee of a seat. I was supposed to be downstairs waiting in line, something I discovered five minutes to departure. As it was, I got bumped to a bus leaving seven hours later.
By all accounts, it was a bad night. I had drunk too much and I was about to spend the night in a very well-lit bus station. I found a spot next to a pillar and tried to sleep on my backpack, still cradling that stupid helmet and trying to sleep through the periodic instructions blaring through the loudspeaker on how to use an escalator. Why anybody needed instructions for that is one question. Why at three in the morning, an entirely different one.
Finally aboard my appointed Greyhound, I wound my way up New York, through scores of anonymous American towns. The towns with Kiwanis clubs, Boy Scout troops, plopped on verdant, rolling hills. Verily American towns, where kids learn to throw baseballs and fix cars. Uncle Dick stood waiting for me in Gouverneur’s charming, diminutive downtown, where it was already dark. We hugged as intimately as Sullivan men are allowed to hug and drove to the house.
Before we went to bed, my uncle and I had the same conversation we always had: an assortment of topics weighted toward cars and weather with plenty of silence mixed in. On his kitchen counter, I saw the magazine I mailed him, which included one of my articles. I asked him if he read it and he had, but he seemed not to realize that my byline, Dick Sullivan, (I have always gone by “Richie”) was an homage to him.
Moments later, I was trying to sleep on the couch, happy enough just to have made it to the Sullivan farm. But I had not yet spent much mental energy on the motorcycle, which I had yet to see, and the fact that I would be riding it homeward in less than half a day.